B.H. Roberts and the construction of the LDS narrative on Seer Stones


Few topics in Mormonism have been as controversial as the use of seer stones by its founder Joseph Smith.  Smith used stones as a “glass looker” to hunt for buried treasures and other lost objects from about 1820-1827 and then to translate or dictate the Book of Mormon from 1827-1829.  While the use of such stones was well known and accepted by the early local converts to the movement from upstate New York, obfuscation and denials regarding the said stones began no later than 1831[1].  By 1834, elaborate stories regarding clear magical spectacles attached to a breastplate with ties to the Old Testament Urim and Thummim had been constructed by Phelps and Cowdery.  Joseph adopted this narrative in his 1838 history which was later canonized.  In this history, Joseph claimed to have worked as a hired hand for Stoal in 1825 as a hired hand digging for treasure – “Hence arose the prevalent story of my having been a money-digger”[2].  Contrary to this account, Joseph was involved in at least 18 digs and was often the seer who directed the dig by looking into his hat to see where the treasure was hidden[3].  He was arrested in 1826 and put on trial for his seer stone use – an act which was illegal under the laws of New York because it was commonly employed by con-artists.

Although there were a few references to seer stones by Brigham Young[4] and Orson Pratt, it appears that the official narrative surrounding the Urim and Thummim, often described as large spectacles with clear lenses, was widely understood and believed by membership prior to the 1880s.  However, between 1878 and 1895 there were a series of newspaper and magazine articles which highlighted the use of seer stones in the translation process[5].  While the editors interjected in some cases to “correct” the seer stone narrative, the Harris narrative talks of a trick that Harris tried to play on Joseph and how Joseph could not translated when Harris switched out Smith’s seer stone with another common rock.  This faith-promoting story was picked up by George Q Cannon and republished in his 1888 book The Life of Joseph Smith[6].

B.H. Roberts

Born in 1857, B.H. Roberts is considered by some to be the most important intellectual or apologist in the history of the LDS church[7].  He probably encountered the seer stone translation narrative no later than 1886.  To avoid incarceration for polygamy, Roberts absconded to England on a mission from 1886 to 1888.  While there, he served as an assistant editor of the Millennial Star.  He arrived about 6 months after a publication of the seer stone story by Stevenson who was likely still serving in England at that time.  Stevenson had heard these accounts directly from Martin Harris and may have provided Roberts with additional details regarding Harris and the use of the seer stone.

Seer stone accounts in the 1880s and 1890s newspapers and magazines were somewhat common.[8]  The majority of these were with interviews from David Whitmer regarding his knowledge of the restoration and early church history prior to his death or 2nd hand stories from Harris as related by Stevenson.

Is it plausible for seer stones to have magical power?

The seer stone narrative challenges the truth claims of the Mormon faith in a variety of ways.  The first difficulty regarding the use of seer stones to 20th century Saints was that many members evidently did not believe in seer stones and their magical power.  Publications suggest that there were at least some members who believed in the magical power of these stones as demonstrated by the fact that this practice was denounced by late 19th and early 20th century church leaders[9].  However, Roberts felt a need to entertain the plausibility of seer stones as a divine seeing instrument given the apparent doubts of younger members.

In his 1904 article, Roberts compares Joseph’s seer stone to other man-made instruments which allow one to better see such as a telescope, a microscope, and the photographic eye used in conjunction with a kinetograph[10].  In doing so, he provided an archetype for later comparisons with mobile phones espoused by Uchtdorf[11] and others[12].

Did Joseph simply read the translation from a magical instrument?

The second difficulty presented by the seer stone is that of a mechanical translation and the inerrancy of God or the scriptures.  Whitmer described the translation process as follows:

Joseph would place the seer-stone in a deep hat, and placing his face close to it, would see, not the stone, but what appeared like an oblong piece of parchment, on which the hieroglyphics would appear, and also the translation in the English language, all appearing in bright luminous letters.  Joseph would then read it to Oliver, who would write it down as spoken.  Sometimes Joseph could not pronounce the words correctly, having had but little education; and if by any means a mistake was made in the copy, the luminous writing would remain until it was corrected.  It sometimes took Oliver several trials to get the right letter to spell correctly some of the more difficult words, but when he had written them correctly the characters and the interpretation would disappear, and be replaced by other characters and their interpretation.

In this narrative, the rock has magical properties when used by Joseph which rendered it inerrant.  Joseph’s job is simply to read what was written.  He needed to be in a spiritual state to receive the writing, but the correct text would not disappear until it was recorded accurately.

By the 1900s there had been hundreds of grammatical changes and several substantive corrections[13] made to the Book of Mormon text.  If the corrected or modern Book of Mormon was the actual word of God, then it would follow that the original text was somehow flawed.  However, if it was received directly from God and merely read off by Joseph, then it should not contain these numerous mistakes. 

Roberts addressed this difficulty in his 1906 article, Translation of the Book of Mormon.[14]  After describing the issues which arise from the statements of Harris and Whitmer[15], Roberts turns to D&C sections 8 and 9 and the experience of Oliver in attempting to translate.  In this passage it states that “you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me it if be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you…”

Roberts continues:

This is the Lord’s description of how Oliver Cowdery could have translated with the aid of Urim and Thummim… and it is undoubtedly the manner in which Joseph Smith did translate the Book of Mormon through the medium of Urim and Thummim.  This description of the translation destroys the theory that Urim and Thummim did everything, and the seer nothing; that the work of translating was merely a mechanical process of looking at the supplied interpretation, in English, and reading it off to an amanuensis…

In all this, Urim and Thummim are helpful.  They are an aid doubtless to concentration of mind.  They may have held at the time just the characters to be translated at the moment, and excluded all others; the translation thought out in the seer’s mind may also have been reflected in the interpreters and held there until recorded by the amanuensis, all of which would be incalculably helpful.  But since the translation is thought out in the mind of the seer, it must be thought out in such thought-sings as are at his command, expressed in such speech-forms as he is master of; for man thinks, and can only think coherently, in language; and, necessarily in such language as he knows.

Evidently Roberts was not comfortable addressing the topic of the brown seer stone and Urim and Thummim in tandem because throughout this article he refers to the translation instrument as the Urim and Thummim.  Nevertheless, he proposes a plausible solution or rebuttal to the translation description provided by Harris and Whitmer.  In doing so however he infers that Whitmer did not understand how the translation was being done.  However, since Whitmer presumably received his knowledge directly from Joseph Smith, his testimony introduces the likelihood that Joseph misrepresented the translation process to at least Whitmer.

Did Joseph use the Seer Stone or Nephite Interpreters (i.e. Spectacles)?

Yet another difficulties of the seer stone narrative is that it contradicts the narrative of Joseph and Oliver who insist that only the Urim and Thummim or Nephite Interpreters were used in the translation process, and that these consisted of large spectacles with clear lenses.  However, apart from Joseph and Oliver, all other important first and second hand witnesses of the translation process as it occurred after September 1828 point to the use of the seer stone in the hat as the only translation method.

Roberts synthesized his account of the seer stone into the translation narrative no later than 1907 in A Defense of the Saints[16].

There will appear between this statement of David Whitmer’s and what is said both by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery a seeming contradiction.  Joseph and Oliver both say the translation was done by means of the Urim and Thummim, which is described by Joseph as being two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate;” while David Whitmer says that the translation was made by means of a “Seer Stone.”  The apparent contradiction is cleared up, however by a statement made by Martin Harris, another of the Three Witnesses.  He said that the Prophet possessed a “Seer Stone,” by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then (i.e., at the time Harris was acting as his scribe) used the Seer Stone.  **** Martin said further that the Seer Stone differed in appearance entirely from the Urim and Thummim that was obtained with the plates, which were two clear stones set in two rims, very much resembling spectacles, only they were larger.

Roberts concludes:

The sum of the whole matter, then concerning the manner of translating the sacred record of the Nephites, according to the testimony of the only witness competent to testify in the matter is:  With the Nephite record was deposited a curious instrument, consisting of two transparent stones, set in the rim of a box, somewhat resembling spectacles, but larger, called by the ancient Hebrews “Urim and Thummim,” but by the Nephites “Interpreters.”  In addition to these “Interpreters” the Prophet Joseph had a “Seer Stone,” which to him was a Urim and Thummim; that the Prophet sometimes used one and sometimes the other of these sacred instruments in the work of translation; and whether the “Interpreters” or the “Seer Stone” was used the Nephite characters with the English interpretation appeared in the sacred instrument; that the Prophet would pronounce the English translation to his scribe, which, when correctly written, would disappear and the other characters with their interpretation take their place, and so on until the work was completed.[17]

While Roberts effectively merges the contradictory accounts of Joseph and Oliver on the one hand and Harris/Whitmer on the other, he does not indicate that all of the current Book of Mormon – including the entire time when Oliver was scribe – was conducted using the seer stone, a fact which Oliver denies in his later accounts.

Roberts’ influence on the Church

He was called to the presidency of the 70 and served in that position from 1888 to his death in 1933.  As an assistant church historian from 1902-1933, Roberts had direct access to church records, journals, etc.  He was a strong revisionist with respect to the translation method, and argued passionately for the concept that both the seer stone and the Urim and Thummim (as described by Smith & Cowdrey) were used. 

Roberts was aware of potential issues with the Book of Mormon and addressed these at various points in his life.  It appears that many articles were first written for the MIA in the 1903-1905 time-frame.  They were then republished in the Improvement Era which he edited.  Later they were compiled into various book forms – In Defense of the Saints (1907), A New Witness for Christ (1909) and A Comprehensive History of the Church (1930).  In these later accounts, the original text of the arguments remains largely unaltered.

Starting no later than 1919, the seer stone was mentioned in some Sunday school lessons regularly.  Some of the mentions refer to Harris and his “test” of Joseph by replacing his seer stone.  Other mentions such as the Nov 14th 1920 lesson talk about the Seer Stone in the larger context of instruments including “1. Urim and Thummim, 2. Interpreters, 3. Divining Cup, 4. Seer Stone, [and] 5) Man made instruments.”  Many of these lessons site Roberts’ work “New Witness for God” – Vol II chapter 7.

Between 1921 and late 1928 there are no mentions of the seer stone in the lessons.  This corresponds to the period that Roberts was absent from SLC, having been sent on a mission to the east coast following his presentation of concerns about the historicity of the Book of Mormon to various General Authorities and other prominent church leaders.

Beginning again in Nov 1928, Feb 1932, Mar 1932, Apr 1932, Feb 1934, and Mar 1934, the Instructor carried lessons which mention the seer stone.  Roberts died in September of 1933.  Within 6 months of his death, the last seer stone lesson appeared.  Given that the previous removal of seer stones from the lessons was also associated with his lack of presence in SLC, there seems to be a correlation between these events.  Seer stones and their role in the Book of Mormon translation would not be mentioned in Sunday school manuals again until 2020.

Despite being gone, Roberts was by no means forgotten.  His books including “A New Witness for God, Vol II” remained popular and in print until the early 1950s.  Some readers of this time would no doubt be familiar with his work and mentions of the seer stone. Perhaps this is why Joseph Fielding Smith chose to address the topic.  However, unlike Roberts, Smith would conclude that Joseph had a seer stone but that

…there is no authentic statement in the history of the Church which states that the use of such a [seer] stone was made in [the Book of Mormon] translation. The information is all hearsay, and personally, I do not believe that this stone was used for this purpose.[18]

Lasting Impact

Roberts approach to the subject in many ways forms the basis for the teachings adopted by the LDS church after 2013.  In their essay on the topic, the Church would claim:

  1. Joseph Smith used two instruments in translating the Book of Mormon.
  2. One instrument was the Nephite “interpreters,” also known as the “Urim and Thummim.” Joseph found the interpreters buried in the hill with the plates.  This consisted of a clear pair of stones bound together with a metal rim.
  3. The other instrument was a small oval seer stone
  4. Joseph Smith had discovered the seer stone in the ground
  5. Joseph Smith used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure
  6. Apparently for convenience, Joseph often translated with the single seer stone rather than the two stones bound together to form the interpreters.
  7. These two instruments—the interpreters and the seer stone—were apparently interchangeable and worked in much the same way.

With the exception of discussing buried treasure, all of these key elements in the church’s new narrative can be found in Roberts’ writings.  Is should be noted however that some of these claims are either misleading or false. A more accurate narrative would conclude:

  1. Smith only used the seer stone to translate all of what is the current Book of Mormon.  The brown stone was mostly likely the only stone employed after the 116 pages were lost.
  2. The Nephite “interpreters” were called “spectacles” until 1832 or 1833.  It was first after a suggestion by Phelps that the “Urim and Thummim” terminology was developed.
  3. According to Harris’s earlier account (1859), the lenses were not clear, but rather consisted of white stones with grey streaks.  Oliver and Lucy Mack Smith speak of clear or diamond lenses, but their accounts are suspect given their inconsistencies on this and other matters.
  4. Chase claimed that he found the stone and not Joseph.  Joseph or Hyrum had loaned the stone from him in this account.  According to at least one source, the stone was discovered while looking for buried treasure.
  5. The “apparently for convenience” phrase may have been added by Stevenson or an editor of the Deseret News.

Thus, while not entirely accurate, Roberts would form the template which the church would follow after reviving a more accurate account of the use of the seer stone in the Book of Mormon translation.  As such, his legacy of apologetics lives on nearly a century after his death.

[1] See https://docdro.id/C32AVOh

[2] See Joseph Smith History 1:56.

[3] The Locations of Joseph Smith’s Early Treasure Quests,  Dialogue V27, no 3 pg 211. http://undergroundnotes.com/graphics7/Dialogue_V27N03_211.pdf

[4] Early Mormonism and the Magical World View, D. Michael Quinn. 1998 p. 246.

[5] See https://docdro.id/dzZ3eVO pp 25-28.  There were at least 4 newspaper accounts and about 4 accounts in church magazines published between 1880-1895.

[6] https://archive.org/details/lifeofjosephsmit01cann/page/58?q=seer+stone

[7] http://bookofmormonresources.blogspot.com/2015/02/top-10-lds-intellectuals-1969.html  and https://www.deseret.com/2011/6/19/20198708/who-are-mormon-intellectuals-top-ten-list-only-a-beginning

[8] See https://docdro.id/dzZ3eVO pp 25-28.

[9] See an article by Widsoe of the Q12 in the Improvement Era, Vol 4 no 4, ,Feb 1901, pg 290.  https://archive.org/details/improvementera0404unse/page/290?q=seer+stone   See also Deseret News 1885.03.18 Astrology and Kindred topics: https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s64t7cww/2661539

[10] Improvement Era Vol 7 no 6 (1904).  The Probability of Joseph Smith’s Story by B.H. Roberts  https://archive.org/details/improvementera0706unse/page/416?q=seer+stone

[11] 2016 facebook post, mentioned in LDS Living:  https://www.ldsliving.com/President-Uchtdorf-Shares-What-He-Believes-About-Seer-Stones/s/82469 

[12] Seer Stones and the Book of Mormon Translation available on the LDS Church History channel on youtube.  https://youtu.be/FKiJOAWNyAk

[13] See for example this video by BYU https://youtu.be/u9O9Og7W6UU?t=270 or this summary by Sandra and Jerald Tanner:  http://www.utlm.org/onlinebooks/3913intro.htm

[14] Improvement Era, Vol IX, No. 6 (April 1906), pg 425 https://archive.org/details/improvementera0906unse/page/426?q=seer+stone

[15] The Whitmer quote referenced in the article removes the term “seer stone” from the quote and inserts “Urim and Thummim”.

[16] Roberts, B.H. In Defense of the Saints pp 256, 259. See also the identical material published in A New Witness for Christ, Vol ii, ch. 7.  This material may have been repeated from lessons written for the MIA between 1903 and 1905.

[17] In Defense of the Saints, pg 259.  Also in New Witness for Christ, Vol II, pg 110.

[18] Smith, Joseph Fielding. Doctrines of Salvation Vol 3 pg 225.  Note:  The wording of this statement is very similar to that of Francis Kirkham from his 1939 article in the Improvement Era (Oct 1939, vol 42, no 10, pg 631).  The author suspects that Kirkham influenced the statement by J.F. Smith.